Decisions, decisions: A filmgoer had to make a lot of on-the-fly calls when they saddled up to the multiplex window and plopped down their stack of crisp Lincolns for a ticket this year. Did you want a superhero film that features just one DSM-diagnosable masked man, or a whole furrowed-brow gaggle of them? Should you go see Channing Tatum clothed, semi-clothed, or stripped-down altogether? Interested in bidding farewell to an old franchise (we already miss you, Batman and Bella Swan), saying hello to a brand-new one (welcome, Katniss the Ass-Kicker!) or basking in the glow of a revitalized 50-year-old warhorse (you've aged remarkably well, Mr. Bond)? Do you prefer your OCD auteurs named Anderson on the retro-whimsical or the profound-inscrutable side? And speaking of our 16th President of the United States: Would you like the bearded command-in-chief in original recipe or extra-crispy vampire-hunting flavor?
The choice was yours, as 2012 offered up a variety of beginnings, endings, rebirths, reboots, sequels, prequels, high-concept larks, lo-fidelity indies, and not one, not two but three Taylor Kitsch-starring bombs. What you almost assuredly weren't going to get, however, was a complete break from the world outside the theater. Yes, there were pockets of pop escapism here and there, from Wes Anderson's nostalgic romance Moonrise Kingdom to Seth "Family Guy" MacFarlane's profane, proudly immature buddy movie Ted (though any movie that takes the last symbol of childhood innocence and turns it into a coke-snorting, skirt-chasing fuck-up suggests we all need some sort of psychic rehab). But look back at most of the year's big titles and box-office successes, and many of them trafficked in a surprising grimness. Not since 2007 — when There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, The Bourne Ultimatum, and No Country for Old Men channeled the malaise at the tail end of the Bush II era — has the movies embraced such a downbeat vibe. It was the best of times for putting the worst of times onscreen.
Take, for instance, the breathlessly anticipated blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's final revisionist word on Batman as a disturbed sociopath. Our man in black is forced out of self-imposed exile by the world's most mumbly terrorist, a brute named Bain who's specifically targeting the city's job creators. After deep-sixing a shaky stock market (cough, cough), the villain turns the 99 percent — or, per another gentleman with off-putting speaking skills, the 47 percent — against the exploiters in power. Soon, an Occupy: Gotham mob takes over the city.
Never mind that the Caped Crusader eventually saves the day; this was wish-fulfillment pop art that sympathized with the devil, turning a tinted funhouse mirror on our own divisive society, class warfare leanings, and tear-it-all-down flirtations. (Nolan wrote the script before the OWS movement became a reality; clearly, however, he'd been reading the slogan-writing on the wall.) It was also the event film of the season, even when a real-life tragedy regrettably eclipsed all the fictional talking points, and enough of a too-big-to-fail behemoth to end up being the second biggest grossing film of the year behind the semi-angstful The Avengers. Being a bummer no longer keeps you from doing boffo box office.
Pole-positioning among the have-nots was 2012's favorite screen pastime, at least when the folks near the bottom of the pay scale weren't simply scrambling to survive. The year's two left-field sleeper hits, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Magic Mike, presented visions of broken-down America populated, respectively, by feral bayou fringedwellers and desperate strip-club dancers. A Sundance sensation, Beasts followed a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, a major discovery) who leads a tribe of fellow poor Louisianians out of the flood-ravaged backwoods; the film's prevailing aesthetic could be described as "junkyard poverty chic," all art-directed debris and post-Katrina wastelands. Magic Mike's abs-fabulousness offered a more raucous night out at the movies — my screening was filled with groups of women screaming in the aisles every time Channing Tatum bumped and grinded — but Steven Soderbergh's upbeat backstage musical were dotted with bleak scenes of folks hustling to make a buck offstage. If Tatum's hunk and Alex Pettyfer's doomed pretty boy were the eye candy, Matthew McConaughey's club manager was the film's dark heart: Here was the face of curdled hedonism as bottom-line capitalism, a CEO avatar in assless chaps.
From the present to the past and back again: Even period pieces did double time as dour reflections of right here, right now. Les Misérables revels in being a loud, proud, Broadway-Bath-and-Beyond movie version of a megahit musical — one that also features a violent 1830s grassroots uprising pitting radicals against les fuzz and occasionally plays up the parallels between poverty-stricken Parisians and today's economically disenfranchised. (Anne Hathaway's showstopping rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is as great as you've heard it is, and ends with the least toe-tapping sentiment ever: "Now life has killed the dream I dreamed." Sing along, everybody!) Lincoln boasted a tony pedigree that suggested another great-man biopic about the Great Emancipator; instead, Steven Spielberg, of all people, gave us a dark, gloriously wonky look at how bureaucratic ineffectiveness and political in-fighting almost blocked the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865. Meet the old bosses, same as the new bosses, etc.
You wouldn't call Django Unchained a period piece — period pieces, maybe, as the antebellum South gets filtered through '60s spaghetti-Westerns and '70s blaxploitation flicks. What this boils down to, really, is that nattily attired antebellum racist crackers and slave traders are about to get Old Testament payback, courtesy of Jamie Foxx's gunslinger. Given it's a Quentin Tarantino film, the usual thrills, squib-heavy violence and quotably profane dialogue deliver the pulp pleasures you've come to expect. But one scene in particular speaks volumes: Mentored by Christoph Waltz's veteran bounty hunter, Foxx's avenging-angel-in-training has to gun down a man who's plowing a field with his son. A debate about the ethics of murder, even when justified, ensues before the trigger is pulled. No amount of gleeful carnage or Leo DiCaprio scenery-gnawing that follows ever erases that minor-key note. People will fixate on the evils of slavery that Tarantino explicitly details, but a deeper cultural unease lies in that moment when a killer instinct must either be suppressed or embraced — and the bloodlust wins.
It's not surprising that, in an age where even James Bond is mournful and moody and viewers feel morally conflicted over watching crowds chant "USA" after hearing an evil man was murdered, that the movies would question old-fashioned notions of heroism more than ever. In what may be the year's best film, that gray-area tension between high-ground righteousness and resolution through a bullet is exploited to perfect effect. Zero Dark Thirty presents our current POTUS's shining moment via a national-security procedural; it begins with an aural collage of 9/11 voices and ends with Navy SEALs killing Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
Obama, however, is not the focus (if anything, the film seems to minimize his contributions to the manhunt's conclusion). Its hero is a Javert-like intelligence operative played by Jessica Chastain, who overcomes her squeamishness to extreme interrogating methods and obsesses over catching the al-Qaeda leader. Having accomplished her goal after a decade of dogged work, she suddenly finds herself without a purpose. "Where do you want to go?" asks the pilot of a military plane. She doesn't answer.
That, in a nutshell, was where the movies left us at the end of 2012. We no longer want easy answers and films no longer felt the need to slap shiny happy faces on our entertainment. They showed us a world where socioeconomic collapse was around every corner, where years of perpetual warfare had compromised our moral compass, where worst-case scenarios were the norm, where Hope ended up being little more than a pitch. Then they asked us where we wanted to go. We're still trying to think of an answer.